The “integration of faith and learning” makes for a nice mantra. You can find it in attractive brochures from innumerable Christian colleges, assuring prospective students—or, at least, their parents—that each of these schools has some vague connection to a religious tradition, that some kind of chapel program is still maintained, and that faculty members are not out-and-out atheists.
Unfortunately, that’s about all it means. And the reason that the “integration of faith and learning” has become little more than a rhetorical gesture in the evangelical academy may be that the Bible itself has become marginalized within our academic discourse. This might seem an unlikely conclusion. In popular perceptions, evangelicals are quintessentially biblicistic, while most evangelical schools assert a fairly clear doctrine about the Bible. Wheaton College’s statement of faith, for instance, reads: “We believe that God has revealed Himself and His truth in the created order, in the Scriptures, and supremely in Jesus Christ, and that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are verbally inspired by God and inerrant in the original writing, so that they are fully trustworthy and of supreme and final authority in all they say.”
As it happens, I am a Southern Baptist, and we Baptists can extol the Scriptures with the best of them. The Bible, we like to say, is inspired, infallible, inerrant; we love those “i” words, and we can add a few more if you like: immeasurable, inimitable, invincible. And yet, for all this, the Bible remains, in much of the evangelical world, an inert (a bad “i” word) artifact from antiquity. Too often we construe its authority as a kind of divine reference book, a sort of inspired manual, that can be understood quite apart from the Christian heritage of Bible-based theology and wisdom across the centuries.
If we are to talk meaningfully about the integration of faith and learning—the joining of Scripture and the disciplines at which a Christian college ought to aim—then we need to revisit the development of Christian doctrine. We need to discern “the pattern of Christian truth,” to borrow a phrase H.E.W. Turner used as the title of an important book he published in the 1950s.
Turner was responding to Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, a book by the German scholar Walter Bauer, originally published in German in 1934. Bauer contended that what emerged as mainstream Christian orthodoxy in the second and third centuries was merely one strand of a very diffuse Christian movement and no more normative for the life of faith than the many other trajectories we can identify in apostolic and post-apostolic times. Bauer’s thesis has, of course, become the reigning orthodoxy within the wider academy. Witness Elaine Pagel’s books on gnosticism and the Gospel of Thomas—to say nothing of Dan Brown’s blockbuster novel, The Da Vinci Code.
In response, Turner claimed there was a discernible pattern of Christian truth, a pattern derived from the apostolic witness and maintained across time as the depositum fidei, or what the New Testament calls “the faith once delivered to the saints.” This pattern is embedded, like a genetic code, in the inspired text of Scripture itself. But only by having to confront counter-narratives—by having to respond to heresy—does the community of faith recognize this pattern with clarity and set forth creeds and confessions of faith to guard the integrity of its worship and proclamation.
The word “heresy” dredges up the flames of Smithfield, the tortures of the Inquisition, and the malleus mallificarum. Indeed, heresy-hunting and witch-burning seem almost synonymous today. Yet the first generation of Christians—as the story is told in Galatians 1:9 and 1 John 4:1-3—found themselves confronted with an alternative pattern of teaching that they could not allow if they were to remain faithful to their Lord. This was not a conflict over secondary matters about which sincere Christians might differ—say, whether the third trumpet sounds before the forth seal is broken in the Book of Revelation. No, heresy is a deliberate perversion, a “choice” (hairesis in Greek), to break with the primary pattern of Christian truth and to promulgate a doctrine that undermines the gospel and destroys the unity of the Christian Church. A Church that cannot distinguish heresy from truth, or, even worse, a Church that no longer thinks this is worth doing, is a Church which has lost its right to bear witness to the transforming Gospel of Jesus Christ who declared himself to be not only the Way and the Life, but also the Truth.
But there is a positive side to heresy as well—in the sense that the history of heresy is the shadow side of the development of doctrine. In the light of its corruption, we can see, retrospectively, the splendor and beauty of the divine revelation embedded in Holy Scripture. In its confrontation with heresiarchs, the Church learned to read the Scriptures in a way that should still inform us today.
Consider Marcion, for example. A ship builder born in Pontus, near the Black Sea, Marcion grew up in the Church, the son of a bishop. Having amassed great wealth, he migrated to Rome around 139 a.d., where he made a large donation to the Church. For five years he wrote and taught in Rome, gathering a following so large that, when he was excommunicated in 144, he is said to have carried half the Church with him.
According to Irenaeus, Marcion once encountered Polycarp of Smyrna on the streets of Rome and asked, “Do you know who I am?”—to which Polycarp replied, “I know the first-born of Satan.” Marcion’s aim was to pull Christianity out from its Jewish soil, and to do this he had to divide creation from redemption. The God of the Old Testament, Marcion said, is not the Father of Jesus (whom Marcion called instead “the Alien God”). The Jewish God was rather a kind of demiurge, like the one in Plato’s Timaeus: a sort of divine craftsman who reshaped the primordial, chaotic matter of the universe.
Make no mistake: Marcion thought his demiurge a real god. It was that god who made a covenant with the Jews and gave them their law. He promised one day to send them a messiah, and he will keep the promise. But Jesus, Marcion says, is not that messiah. Jesus is instead the emissary of the Alien Father. Jesus came to offer an alternative way of salvation, one that bypassed the world of matter, the world of bugs and mosquitoes and crocodiles and vipers, the world of birth and begetting, of sexuality and marriage. Jesus did not experience a natural, human birth: “Away,” Marcion said, “with that poor inn, those mean swaddling clothes, and that rough stable.” The true Christ could not have assumed a material body that participated in the created world, for such a body would have been “stuffed with excrement.” Significantly, Marcion would admit married persons to baptism in his church only if they took a vow to abstain from all sexual intercourse. Sex was anathema because of—not in spite of—procreation, since the material body was a curse and an indignity.
Marcion shared his docetism and anti-materialism with the gnostics of his day, but he had a different, more radical, way of justifying his beliefs. Early on, many Christian interpreters resorted to non-literal and allegorical readings of the Old Testament, especially of such difficult passages as the imprecatory psalms. Marcion, however, urged the rejection of the entire Old Testament. God’s dealings with humankind through Christ stood in no relation to any previous dispensation but were radically new and radically other. Having rejected the Old Testament as legitimate Scripture for Christians, Marcion concocted his own alternative, a two-part document consisting of an “Evangelium” and an “Apostolicum.” The “Evangelium” was an expurgated version of Luke that omitted the messy birth narratives, while the “Apostolicum” was a carefully edited version of ten of Paul’s epistles. (Unlike his gnostic contemporaries, Marcion claimed no private tradition of secret sayings or oral transmissions.)
In responding to Marcion, the Church reaffirmed two principles of primary importance in the pattern of Christian truth. Indeed all subsequent theology is to some degree a working out of these two principles: the coinherence of creation and redemption, and the fundamental continuity of the Old and New Testaments.
While the process of canon formation required several centuries of controversy, debate, and assessment—as the Church sorted through the challenge not only of Marcion who wanted to truncate the canon, but also of others, such as the Montanists, who tried to expand it—the fundamental direction of this process was set in the context of the earlier debate. Insofar as we orthodox Christians today accept the Scriptures as a discrete corpus of inspired writings, we do so because we stand on this side of the great divide of the second century’s battle for the Bible.
If Marcion taught the Church one lesson about what Christianity was not, Arius taught us another in the fourth century. One question—How is Jesus of Nazareth related to the God who created all things other than Himself by His almighty, sovereign power?—was at the heart of the struggle between Arius, a presbyter in the church of Alexandria, and his bishop Athanasius.
Arius had a serious theological point: God’s innermost being or essence, he said, cannot be shared, or communicated, with anyone else. “We know,” he declared, “there is one God, alone unbegotten, alone eternal, alone without beginning, alone true, alone immortal.” God is thus utterly transcendent, self-sufficient, and all-powerful. What’s more, this God guards His divinity jealously—a parsimonious God, a God so self-contained in isolation and absoluteness that the very thought of sharing His “essence” with anyone, even with a “Son,” is abhorrent to Him.
Against this view, Athanasius and the orthodox fathers who gathered at the Council of Nicea in 325 declared their belief “in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” If Jesus was not one substance with the Father, the council said, then he was neither worthy to be worshiped nor capable of redeeming the world.
Arius had ridiculed the idea that God could “beget a son,” as unitarianism of every kind has always done. But Athanasius, and the theologians in the Nicene tradition who followed him, sought to explain the “begottenness” of the Son in a way that avoided both the sterility of Arius’ God and the crass literalism derived from Greek mythology. The Nicene formula described the Son as being both the same in substance with the Father and also in some way distinct from the Father: He was God from God, Light from Light, very God from very God.
The challenge was to explain this “fromness” without violating the sameness. This they did by declaring that the Son was begotten—but not in the way human fathers beget or generate their earthly children. The Son of the heavenly Father was begotten from all eternity. He did not “come to be” at a point in time, but from eternity the Father and the Son exist in a relation of total and mutual self-giving. Thus, far from compromising God’s fundamental reality, communicability and relationship are constitutive of it. This is what the Bible means when it declares that “God is love.”
It is often said that the doctrine of the Trinity was the result of Christian capitulation to Greek philosophy. In fact, it was the exact opposite. Arius was the one who pushed the implications of philosophical monism and consequently had to portray Christ in mythological terms as neither God nor human, but rather a sort of demi-god who, though the most exalted of all creatures, was still only a creature.
The doctrine of the Trinity belongs to the pattern of Christian truth because without it we cannot really understand the narrative of Jesus as the story of God, and if the story of Jesus is ultimately anything other than the story of God, there is no Gospel. The doctrine of the Trinity is necessary for understanding the Bible’s overarching account of what God has said and done in history. Such a framework makes the Scriptures not just a disparate collection of interesting documents from the world of antiquity, but one single unitary Bible. It allows us to use the word “Scripture” as a singular, collective noun. This is a lesson Arius has helped us to learn.
Both Marcion and Arius were from the East. For a final example of the usefulness of heretics in forcing us to understand the pattern of Christian truth, we must turn to a Western heretic: Pelagius. Born around 350 in the British Isles, at the very edge of what was then the civilized world, Pelagius had piercing eyes, red hair, and carried the family name of Morgan, facts which have led some to think he may have come from Ireland. In any event, he had the scent of Celtic asceticism about him and when he moved to Rome he was deeply offended by the laxity he saw among Christians there.
He was especially infuriated when he overheard Augustine’s prayer, Domine, da quod iubes et iube quod vis: “O Lord, give what You command, and command whatever You will.” This kind of devotion, Pelagius thought, undercut the moral nerve of Christian faith. If we are not able to obey God’s commandments by ourselves, then why had He given them in the first place? Salvation must come from the performance of good works and the fulfillment of obligations laid down by God.
Pelagian theology begins with the notion that Adam was created mortal: he would have died even if he had never sinned. Thus, we do not inherit death from Adam as the punishment for sin. Nor do we inherit the sin itself. According to Pelagius, sin is transmitted by imitation, not propagation. Human beings are born without sin, and they commit sins only by following the bad examples of others.
This means that grace is not opposed to nature but rather is present within nature itself. With the law in the Old Testament and Christ in the New, God has given us the perfect rulebook and the perfect rulekeeper, but nothing more—for salvation, like sin, is by imitation. This means that perfection in this life is possible. Pelagius did not say it was easy. He did not claim to be perfect himself. But he did believe that, in addition to Jesus, there were perfect people who always obeyed all of God’s commands. It is the worst kind of defeatism, he thought, to tell Christians in advance that perfection was unattainable. Indeed, for Pelagius, predestination is subordinate to foreknowledge: when the Bible speaks of God’s predestination of the elect, it is merely speaking of His ability to see into the future and ratify in advance what He knows human beings will do by their own efforts.
In the course of the Pelagian controversy, St. Augustine answered that Pelagius had turned the whole of Christian theology upside down. Death is not natural but radically inimical to human life, an “enemy” to be overcome, as St. Paul put it. The moment Adam sinned, he began “verging toward old age and death.” Developing a robust doctrine of original sin, which emphasized the seminal and corporate identity of the human family, Augustine argued that the human situation is far more serious than Pelagius allowed. Only a supernatural work of God, which comes to sinners from beyond themselves, can make any real difference in our standing before a holy God. Christians can indeed make great progress in their walk with God, and they should be encouraged to do so, but sin is an ever-present reality with which we must struggle until we draw our last breath. Thus every day we need to offer again this petition from the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses.”
Following Paul, Augustine grounds predestination in God’s eudokia, his “good pleasure,” as the King James version translates that term in
Ephesians 1:5. It is important to note that Augustine affirms the intactness of human free will even after the Fall: it is still we who act and love and choose, and we who are therefore responsible morally for what we do. But the will has become so thoroughly susceptible to pride and self-seeking that it is disposed now to choose objects of desire that lead it further and further away from God. In other words, human free will has been so weakened by sin and the Fall that it has become, as Luther would say, incurvatus in se—“curved in on itself,” like a coil or a spring. We are liberi, sed non liberati—“free, but not freed.” Augustine knew that we were created by God for fellowship with Him, and that our hearts would always be restless until they found true rest in Him. But this kind of reorientation required gratia operans, the operation of divine grace. As Jesus says in John 15:5 (one of Augustine’s favorite Bible verses): “Apart from me you can do nothing.”
Even though Pelagius was condemned as a heretic at the Council of Ephesus in 431, one year after Augustine’s death, his ideas continue to influence the way we understand the human situation, not only in the optimistic anthropology of liberal Protestantism and the lingering semi-Pelagianism of some Roman Catholics, but also in a sort of “can-do” evangelicalism, which stresses positive-thinking and self-improve ment. BenjaminB.Warfield may have been right when he said that the Reformation was the triumph of Augustine’s theology of grace over his doctrine of the Church, but in a broader sense sola gratia is the common heritage of both historic Protestantism and faithful Catholicism, just as it is the shared confession of both classical Calvinism and the Arminianism of John Wesley. These are lessons Pelagius has helped us to learn.
If the Church’s response to these three heretics constitutes part of the permanent, irreducible, and irreversible pattern of Christian truth, then this has important implications for Christian scholars in all disciplines. We are not free to throw in a gnostic gospel or two—or to delete embarrassing miracles or “doubtful” Jesus sayings—and regard our new configuration as having the same valence as the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments. Nor can we present Jesus of Nazareth as merely one savior among many, or the way of salvation as a form of self-enhancement.
As Christians who accept the Church’s regula fidei and who stand Sunday after Sunday to recite the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, we are not free to view the Bible as though we had it at our disposal, as though we ourselves were not claimed by its story, as though we had already mastered this ancient document and could now move on to other bodies of knowledge without the discernment we have learned from Scripture. When Calvin began his Institutes with the sentence, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves,” he didn’t mean that we should first earn a Ph.D. in systematic theology, and then, with the knowledge of God safely under our belt, switch disciplines and go on to earn a second Ph.D. in, say, psychology. The duplex cognitio Calvin refers to is not sequential but correlative: we cannot know ourselves without knowing that we are at once finite and fallen creatures of God. Nor can we know God without knowing ourselves as persons made in His image, as objects of His judgment and love.
This is not to say, of course, that we cannot learn a great deal about the world of nature and history and science and politics and art quite apart from the story of God and His creatures as it is told in the Bible and confessed in the creeds of the Christian faith. Of course, we can and we must. But as believing scholars committed to the pattern of Christian truth, we must never forget that the usefulness of such abstract knowledge is limited. By itself, abstraction will always lead us away from what is truly real. Divorced from the biblical narrative, a purely abstract knowledge becomes not only self-referential but also self-defeating, fatuous, and sterile. It, too, will curve back in on itself.
As the noted theologian Robert Jenson once put it: “Scripture’s story is not part of some larger narrative; it is itself the larger narrative of which all other true narratives are parts. And so do not when reading Scripture try to figure out how what you are reading fits into some larger story; for there is no larger story.” This is true whether we are talking about biology, political science, or aesthetics. Disconnected from the biblical story, such disciplines can tell us how things work but not what they are for; how to clone a human baby but not whether this should be done; how to construct an atomic bomb but not whether it should be used; how to build a maximum security prison but not how to treat the prisoners. Without some teleology, there is no flourishing and no future for the human community.
This way of reading the Bible has important implications for the various disciplines. Against Marcion the Church decided to retain the Old Testament as Christian Scripture and rejected his division of creation and redemption. In doing so, it validated what we might call the principle of luminous particularity, the principle that no object in nature, and no event in history, is an isolated, opaque fact closed in on itself. Each is, rather, a translucent window onto a whole pattern of human experience. This means that we must approach the world with a profound respect for the numinous character that it possesses—not because it is some kind of earth goddess, but by virtue of its having been created by the triune God.
In its struggle with Arius, the Church affirmed the central axiom of the Christian faith, summarized by St. John in the prologue to his gospel: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The Church has always had to insist on the reality of the Incarnation against docetists, neoplatonists, and deists of all kinds, against the kind of God Thomas Hardy described as “a dreaming, dark, dumb Thing that turns the handle of this idle show.” This hideous caricature is widely accepted in today’s world and is at the root of much contemporary atheism. Against all of this the Church echoes the language of Scripture and declares, in the words of Ignatius of Antioch, that Jesus Christ was truly born, truly lived, truly died, and truly rose—altheos, altheos, altheos, the Greek adverb resounding like a gong through the debates of the early Church.
Finally, from the struggle with Pelagius, we learn the practice of humility before the mystery of the holy. Augustine discerned in Pelagius the same scorning of humility that he had witnessed among the neoplatonists. This is an occupational hazard for all of us who stand with one foot in ecclesia, and the other in schola. We may be Augustinians in our theology, but we are all socialized to be Pelagians in our profession, to exaggerate the importance of personal effort and personal worthiness. We drill this into our children and students from kindergarten on. As a dean who recommends colleagues for promotion and tenure in one institution, and as a trustee who votes on such recommendations in another, I know all too well the institutional constraints that reinforce this kind of academic pelagianism from which none of us is exempt.
Augustine made a distinction between a way of knowing he called scientia—the image of a man hanging off a cliff by his fingernails, frenetically digging and scratching, straining every nerve until his fingernails are embedded with the dirt and blood of his exertion. He said there is another way of knowing, sapientia: wisdom. And this often comes to us as an unexpected insight. In such moments cognition becomes recognition and you know that this is not achievement but gift. This is the kind of knowledge that generates humility before the mystery of the holy.
Augustine has not been very well received in the East, but I think he would like this statement from Theaphon the Recluse, a Russian Orthodox bishop of the nineteenth century: “The principal thing is to stand before God with intellect in the heart, and to go on standing before Him unceasingly day and night, until the end of life.” In such a summons to humility we find the implicit covenant of all our dialogues, and our vocation as followers of the Lamb and students in the school of Christ.
Timothy George is Dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University, an executive editor of Christianity Today, and a member of the editorial board of First Things. This essay is adapted from a speech given at Wheaton College.